Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Luck and Desert

During my ritual reading-of-blogs-in-order-to-put-off-work-I- should-be-doing-this-morning, I came across this post by Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber. There Chris discusses, among other things, Luck Egalitarianism and the relationship between luck and desert. Luck Egalitarianism rests upon something like John Rawls' criticisms of desert as a morally useful concept. Rawls points out that much of our success in the world turns on pure luck. The thinking is that I deserve credit only for those things that are somehow under my control, that are the outcome or product of choices that I've made or actions that I've taken. However, many of our traits are not at all earned.

Consider, for instance, physical attractiveness. That, by and large, is genetic and hence not under our control. I made this same point to a friend recently when I remarked that she was a clear winner in the genetic lottery. She laughed, whether at my charm or at the lameness of my compliment I'm not sure. I know which one I'm going with; sometimes ignorance really is bliss. She did ask if I'd write do a blog post on the subject. I doubt that this is exactly what you had in mind, but here it is anway. Philosophy and brownie points all at the same time. I love my job. But I digress. Where was I? Oh, right, desert. So all sorts of studies show that attractive people have lots of advantages (they are more likely to get hired, for instance, and more likely to earn higher pay. At the very least, they tend to get lots more free drinks in bars). Any success that results from pure physical attractiveness, however, is not deserved. How one looks, after all, is in large part not something that one can control.

Many other traits are the same way. Creativity. Motivation. Intelligence. Charisma. None of these things seems really to be something that I deserve. This isn't to say that all of these traits are genetic. One needn't come down either way on the nature/nurture question for the problem to kick in. Maybe motivation is learned behavior. That learning, however, would require certain conditions to be in place (good teachers, good parents, etc.). Those conditions are not chosen by the individual and thus cannot form the basis of desert either. To the extent that my character is a product of some combination of genetics and early upbringing (and to the extent that my character is conducive to success in the world), then I've done nothing to earn that character and hence can't really be said to deserve anything that I derive as a product of that character.

I tend to think that such criticisms of desert are exactly right. That's not to say, however, that I'm an egalitarian or that I think that we ought to be egalitarians. Here's how I see the argument for egalitarianism working, roughly.
  1. Most of what people earn is a product of luck and thus undeserved.
  2. If a person does not deserve his/her property, then he/she can have no good grounds for objecting to having part of that property taken away.
  3. Thus desert is not an in principle reason for objecting to redistribution.
  4. There are independent arguments for thinking that redistribution is a good thing.
  5. Thus we ought to redistribute wealth.
Obvsiously (4) is pretty vague here, and that's intentional. I'm not really interested in the arguments for egalitarianism, nor do I want to presuppose one particular version. Rather, I'm trying to suggest the argument that all egalitarians have in common.

Personally, I buy 1-3. I'm not so sure that I necessarily buy (4). At the very least, I'm pretty sure that I don't buy into any of the most prevalent arguments for (4)--Rawls, Dworkin, Arneson, etc. I think that what 1-3 do is to knock down a lot of deontological arguments for libertarianism, but as I've said elsewhere, I think that deontological arguments for libertarianism are fatally bad anyway. That this is an objection just means that rejecting deontological libertarianism is overdetermined. It's sort of like shooting me while I'm standing in the gas chamber.

There might well be (and I think that really there are) good consequentialist arguments for acting as if desert really matters. Without desert, for instance, meritocracy is a pretty meaningless concept. But meritocracy is useful and efficient, so it might be good to keep it around even if we lack any deep moral justifications for it. That, however, is another post for another day.


Anonymous Mitchell Ullman said...

Without going too deeply into the issue, I would like to say that while I'm not one for supporting egalitarianism (although a bit of humane equanimity might do something for people's attitudes) I do think that a wholly merit-based society misses the very point you were making in this post. Being 'ahead of the game' by shear happenstance is not merit. Making do with little, on the other hand, does seem to be something closer to what I think most want to mean when they speak of merit. Besides which, taken to the extreme, the meritocracy rejects on its face the safety net you like so much. ;) If and when I ever get my shit together and send you a copy of that paper I am working on for the fall, I may be able to give reasoning for a messy hybrid that seems a bit more workable (and oddly enough is directly inspired by Strauss's support of the elite).

Now, back to my not doing any work.

10:49 AM  
Blogger Adam Johnson said...

This is actually something I've considered quite a bit before. I used to be (okay, who am I kidding, I still am) very dismissive and intolerant of individuals I deemed to be 'stupid.' Then it hit me that I myself did nothing to earn any of my percieved mental acuity, and to use deficiencies in said area as a point of criticism toward another individual is as foolish as bragging about rolling a 4 instead of a 2 in a game of dice.

As far as egalitarianism is related to this, I'll rest my un-deserved brain and continue to enjoy my summer break rather than attempt any sort of insightful or logical response :p

1:23 PM  
Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

Just because a transaction is partially due to chance does not mean the transaction is undeserved. For example, the attractive person who gets better job offers presents others at the employment with a good: the pleasure of seeing handsome/pretty faces. That person's attractiveness provides something that the other person wants. So #1 isn't particularly powerful.

Even if we concede that a transaction occurs which is more favourable, and if we concede that that portion is undeserved, it's for certain that no one else deserves it, either. If the question is distribution by desert, then others are no more deserving of the favourable portion of a transaction than the recipient. So the lack of desert is certainly no argument that others have a just claim.

There's yet another problem. Value is subjective. There is no way to tell how much a person's favourable traits have given them, because interpersonal comparisons of utility are inherently flawed.

Premises 1-3 are pretty weak.

- Josh

6:29 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

I agree with almost everything that you say here. Certainly it's true that that no one else deserves my success any more than I do. I also agree that it's difficult to tell what portion of your success stems from undeserved qualities. Of course, that truth entails that it's also difficult to tell what portion of your success is actually deserved.

Nor would I deny that someone who hires a person because he/she is handsome/pretty is getting something out of the transaction. I'm not sure, though, that I see how that's especially relevant to whether or not the person getting hired deserved to have gotten hired.

Basically, it's because I agree with what you say that I think that 1-3 follow. Desert is just simply irrelevant to determining how goods ought to be distributed. It doesn't work in either direction; that is, there just is no one who deserves the product of your labor. So we ought to determine distribution by some mechanism other than desert. Libertarianism might still be the correct answer here, but if it is correct, it won't be because you deserve what you earned.

6:56 PM  
Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

I think we might be using "deserve" in different sentences. Are you using it in an inherent sense, like divine right of kings, or in an external sense, like deserving an award for saving a kid from an icy river?

I'm using it - or trying to use it - in the latter sense.

- Josh

4:43 PM  
Anonymous Mitchell Ullman said...

lol, I don't think you'll ever get Joe to agree to the first sense.

As a matter of fact, I don't know of many people that would... aside from those who believe in 'manifest destiny' or some crazy shit like that.

8:27 PM  
Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

I have no idea why you buy (2). There are perfectly good grounds to object to having one's property taken away, though desert isn't one of them. I like Nozick's distinction between desert and entitlement -- assume a perfectly just social order, then say we bet a dollar on a coinflip. I won't deserve that dollar if I win, but I am entitled to it.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Joe Miller said...

Point taken. You'd of course have to demonstrate that you are entitled to your property, something that will prove difficult to do in the real world (where we don't begin with a just distribution). But you're right that either (2) is worded badly or else my claim to buy (2) is silly. I'd try to figure out which it is, but for some odd reason I decided that a couple of shots of bourbon would be fun tonight.

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Mitchell Ullman said...

What the...

Are you saying that you're a numerologist now, Joe?

That's it, the end is nigh.  First it's luck and now it's numeralogical similitudes predicting our 'fate.'  The next thing you know, Joe'll be talking about how there is some old guy lounging in a cloud-bank like a Lazy-Boy, who's got our lives allready planned out and just likes to watch!

8:28 AM  

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